Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Can't win for losing (and that's the way they want it)

Counties burdened with sex offenders
MONTGOMERY, AL | Officials in counties with state prisons say they are being burdened by an unexpected side effect of the Community Notification Act, which requires sex offenders to give authorities a valid address 45 days before their sentence ends.

Under the act, failing to give a residential address that isn’t at least 2,000 feet away from a school or childcare facility is a Class C felony. And offenders whose addresses don’t comply must remain jailed in the county where the violation occurred until they have a valid address.

That usually means offenders -- and their costs -- are transferred to county jails, said Sonny Brasfield, assistant executive director for the Association of County Commissions of Alabama.

“They’re released from the state prison and as they walk into the parking lot, a sheriff’s car is already there to pick them up and take them straight to the jail," he said. “The law makes no provision for them to come back and say 'Sorry, I didn’t know my address was bad.’"

“They’re not going back to inmates to say this address doesn’t work -- there’s not a way for the inmate to correct his problem," Brasfield said.

County officials say there needs to be some recourse for inmates who are homeless or unknowingly give an address that has become invalid while they were incarcerated. Inmates who are homeless are considered violators and charged with felonies because they don’t have a valid address to give.

Ron Smith, chairman of the Bullock County Commission, said so far seven inmates have been taken to the county’s jail under the act and the same has happened in St. Clair and Barbour counties, which are home to other state prisons.

Smith said something needs to be done soon to change the act.

“I think that’s unconstitutional because what are we holding them on? Suppose they never find a good address?" Smith said. “Suppose he was staying with his mother and God forbid his mother died? Now he doesn’t have a place to go. We get no money for housing the state inmates and for a poor county like us, we’re going to suffer."

Inmates taken to the county jails are kept there until they have a date to go before a grand jury on the felony charge.

Bullock County Sheriff Raymond Rogers said jail officials worked with family members and community assistance programs to get valid housing arrangements for four of the seven sex offenders who have been affected by the act at his jail. The remaining three are homeless and are still in the Bullock County Jail, he said.

“The longest one I ever kept in my jail was for four months," Rogers said. “Their loved ones don’t want them. I have to keep calling the county they live in trying to help them find a place. It’s kind of like the jail is turning into a halfway house and we don’t have the people or the money for that."

Prisons Commissioner Richard Allen said the corrections department is aware of the problem and he’s offered to keep the sex offenders in the state prisons while they wait for their grand jury appearance.

But Attorney General Troy King, who pushed hard for passage of the act last year, said a better idea is to force all sex offenders to serve their full sentences instead of giving them less time for good behavior and parole.

King acknowledged the problem would still exist once the offenders served their full sentence, but said it would give them more time to find a valid address. He said the cost of keeping them in county jails is worth it to keep sex offenders off the streets longer.

“We put people in prisons to punish them. I think most people would say if I can keep a predator away from my children, away from hurting my grandchildren by paying to keep them in prison, I’ll pay to keep them in prison," he said. “Yes, we’re spending (taxpayer) money, but I don’t think anybody would say that’s not a good investment."

Allen said plans are already in place to expand programs that help inmates transition from prison to life outside the corrections system. Part of the program will be assisting inmates with housing and that will help them avoid giving addresses that aren’t in compliance, he said.

Bullock County attorney Johnny Waters said he’s eager to see what will be done to resolve the problem.

“You may have a man who’s been in prison for 15, 16 years on a rape charge. Now his family’s disowned him, momma and daddy says he can’t live with us, and he’s got no other family. He doesn’t even hardly have bus fare to get home," Waters said. “What does somebody in that scenario do? Nobody can answer that question for me. He’s basically thrown to the wind.

“There’s pros and cons to the law. Mainly it’s to keep people protected and I can understand that side of it. But on the other side you’ve got a person trying to do right. Somewhere there’s got to be a better answer."

And there you have it. Attorney General Troy King said it most clearly, it's all about "keep[ing]sex offenders off the streets longer." Who needs a constitution when the laws can be written so you've got no chance of winning? Being homeless can now earn you a felony rap, complete with prison time, in Alabama.


Monday, March 26, 2007

Spamming the e-mail registries

It's an easy guess that the e-mail registries several states are so eager to set up are going to end up with a whole bunch of e-mail addresses that don't belong to registered sex offenders.

Consider the woman who breaks up with her boyfriend and wants to get back at him in some way. All she has to do is to look up the postal address (online) of some registered sex offender and then send a letter to the police purportedly from this registered sex offender saying, "I am using this new e-mail address" and giving ex-boyfriend's e-mail. The police will dutifully enter the e-mail in the registry and... bingo! The ex is locked out of any social networking sites he belonged to, or wants to belong to.

And the laws have no provision for taking his e-mail address out of the registry.

Expect to see a LOT of e-mail addresses of folks who aren't registered sex offenders winding up in these registries. And guess what happens when work e-mails get registered?

Friday, March 16, 2007

How stupid can you get? [MS]

Most of the country considers Mississippi the home of stupid, poorly-educated folk. I'm not about to say why I think this is wrong, but news items such as the following certainly are no contributor to my position:

Sex Offender Bill
(it's "for the children," don'cha know?)

A new bill to protect Mississippi's children from pedophiles is waiting for the Governor's signature .

Sex offenders now have to turn over their computer online identity and their screen name or username to the Department of Public Safety.

Convicted offenders also have to notify DPS within three days of any changes in their address, name, or employment.

DPS also keeps the offenders palm prints on file.

Ooh! This is, like, REALLY going to stop a convicted and dutifully registered child sex offender from.. acquiring a second (or third, or fourth, or four hundred thirty-second...) e-mail address for the explicit intent of engaging a minor? Make the penalty instant execution and maybe I'll believe these folks, but otherwise it's a whole bunch of worthless grandstanding.

This also dumps on those who are trying to regain their place in society (and I grant you, some proportion of convicted sex offenders aren't, but the government's own statistics say that's not all of them) -- with a possibility of re-offenses (and new victims) by those who otherwise wouldn't.

But it really doesn't matter. I am sure Mississippi lawmakers know their market far better than I do, and if they're engaged in destructive pandering it is a clear sign they think they have an easy sell among their shee... I mean, citizens.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Another source of information

Found a few days ago. (Link is in the Title.)

The new American witch hunt

INCREASINGLY, legislation dealing with sex offenders is being passed that is punitive, untested, expensive and, in many cases, counterproductive — demonizing people who commit sexual offenses without offering any empirical information that the new laws will reduce sexually violent crime.

Last week, for instance, New York became the 19th state to enact so-called sexually violent predator legislation. This legislation provides for the indefinite "civil commitment" of sexual offenders who have served their time in prison and are about to be released.

The legislation was passed despite a lack of evidence that such laws actually reduce sexual violence and despite recent reports of warehousing and chaos in some programs and relentlessly rising costs in others.

It is just one example of the kind of punitive laws being passed across the country. Other measures include increasingly strict residency restrictions (such as those imposed by Proposition 83 in California, approved by the voters in November), more stringent rules for community notification regarding sexual offenders and monitoring by GPS (also mandated under Proposition 83, with cost projections of $100 million annually, according to the state's legislative analyst).

In many states, politicians are eager to pass such legislation, which is enthusiastically supported by the public. Indeed, ask citizens what they think and you're likely to hear that they support laws to "get rid of perverts" who, in the eyes of many people, "deserve what they get."

This is not new. In general, dispassionate discussion of sexuality is difficult, even more so when it comes to sexual crimes. Ebbs and flows of public attention and vilification have often occurred in this country.

In the 1930s and '40s, castration was practiced in California, where sex offenders and homosexuals received this "treatment." Also, the first generation of sexual psychopath laws was passed during this time, mandating indefinite commitment for sexually violent predators. In the 1980s, society was roiled by a series of high-profile day-care-center abuse cases (such as the McMartin case and others that proved later to be unfounded). In the 1990s, there was a media uproar over supposed "ritualistic" and "satanic" sexual abuse.

These days, the pendulum continues to swing further toward the punitive end of the spectrum, with ever more draconian sentencing and post-release conditions. Under the federal Adam Walsh Child Protection Act, signed into law by President Bush in July, all sex offenders will be listed on the Internet, making information on offenders, regardless of whether they belong to a low-, medium- or high-risk category, publicly accessible; this includes people, for example, whose only crime is the possession of child pornography.

Obviously, this makes it increasingly difficult for ex-offenders to obtain residences or jobs — the mainstays of stability — and it subjects them to ongoing vigilantism and public censure. Although notification may make sense for some, it does not make sense for all.

In California, the most recent debate has been over whether Proposition 83, the law passed last year banning registered sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a school or park, can be retroactively applied to the 90,000 offenders who have already been released from prison. (Two federal judges ruled last month that it may not.)

What is being created is a class of individuals that is progressively demonized by society and treated in such a way that a meaningful reintegration into society is impossible.

Yes, sexual abuse is a serious matter. Yes, individuals who commit sexual crimes should be punished. Unquestionably, a small percentage of sex offenders are very dangerous and must be removed from society. What's more, we know that sexual crimes are devastating to victims and their families and that we must do all we can to protect ourselves from "predators."

But demonizing people rather than treating them makes little sense, and passing laws that are tough but mindless in response to political pressure won't solve the problem either.

The reality is that, despite the popular perception to the contrary, recidivism rates for sexual offenders are among the lowest of any class of criminals. What's more, 90% of sex offenders in prison will eventually be released back into the community — and 90% of sexual offenses are committed by people known to their victim, such as family members or trusted members of the community — so rehabilitation is critical. It is not possible, affordable, constitutional or reasonable to lock up all sex offenders all of the time.

Society's efforts to segregate sex offenders are backfiring, resulting in unintended consequences. Homelessness is increasing among sex offenders, for instance, making it harder to monitor them and causing some law enforcement officials to call for a repeal of residency restrictions.

One of the greatest challenges to workable civil commitment programs is that offenders are so feared that, when they are ready to be reintroduced into society, no community will accept them — so instead they remain institutionalized indefinitely, creating ever-increasing costs without an end in sight.

Why has this demonization occurred? One reason is that offenders are hot news, and the more heinous the sexual crime, the more the media focus on it. Thus, our minds create a stereotype of egregious evil with respect to all sex offenders. We no longer distinguish between the most egregious cases and the others, despite the fact that the most terrible crimes represent only a small proportion of all sexual offenses.

But there are less serious crimes, and we should acknowledge that. Possession of child pornography is categorically different from a sexual assault. So is exhibitionism. The wife of a man who committed a hands-off crime involving possession of child pornography put it this way: "Each of these horrendous crimes drives another nail into our coffin."

Another reason for the demonization is that society has failed to fund research on the treatment and management of people convicted of sexual crimes — despite the fact that states are willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on unproven programs for treatment and containment.

The current public discourse on sex offenders is, therefore, without a base of empirical studies. Psychiatry, psychology and our national research institutes have eschewed involvement with such research.

No one is suggesting that sexual crimes should go unpunished or that some of the newer approaches — such as medication, intensive community supervision or even carefully considered civil commitment — are without value. What is becoming clearer, however, is that the climate in the United States makes reasonable discussion difficult.

What can be done? Some scholars, in an effort to interpose rationality between public fear and legislation, have suggested the concept of "evidence-based legislation." This is analogous to "evidence-based medicine" and would call on legislative bodies to inform their proposed laws with the best available scientific evidence — something that is rarely done now.

What is happening now with individuals who have committed sexual crimes is the modern-day equivalent of a witch hunt. Our images of the worst determine what we mete out to all sex offenders. It is time to reexamine our approaches and develop empirically based, scientifically sound measures and treatments to bring rationality back to this discussion.

It's long past time we had some studies of the (in)effectiveness of all this legislation.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Sex offenders in churches

What can a church congregation do when one of their number is a convicted sex offender who says church attendance is important for his rehabilitation? A Reno, Nev. congregation is grappling with just that issue.

According to the Reno Gazette-Journal, clergy and members at Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd are in a quandry over how to protect their children while following Christ's example of welcoming sinners.

"Clearly, we are called to love," said the Rev. Rebecca Schlatter, associate pastor. "But is it safe to love this particular person up close?" ...

First, one needs to recognize that the statistics on recidivism rates one sees tend to be either completely false ("they all repeat over and over") or misleading (many "recidivist" crimes are actually something else completely, not sex offenses). This is no reason to relax, however -- there are a few who do repeat, over and over.

But there is a solution. Several years ago an outfit called Prisoners for Christ Outreach Ministries (http://www.pfcom.org) developed a protocol for churches bringing a sex offender into their midst. I do not know what has happened with it, but it would seem that by now it's been tried and even refined.

Welcome a sex offender into your church family? Probably one of the best things you can do for his rehabilitation -- not to mention his soul. But use the protocol.